Khumjung School Golden Jubilee
Sir Edmund Hillary is never really out of mind in Nepal's Khumbu district. By far the greatest tourism draw is Mount Everest, which is forever linked to the names of its first summiters, Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. But, whereas Tenzing returned to his adoptive home in Darjeeling, India, Hillary returned again and again to the Everest area, undertaking an extraordinary series of development projects, a legacy that is carried on by his own Himalayan Trust as well as partner organizations based in Canada, Australia, Germany, and the UK. Hillary himself is credited with two hospitals, several clinics, an airstrip, a reforestation program, and some thirty schools.
The impact has been remarkable. At the time Hillary built his first school, in 1961, the Sherpas were poor, even by Nepali standards. Now, thanks largely to the tourism avalanche precipitated by the "conquest" of Everest and even more by the Hillary airstrip at nearby Lukla, the Sherpas are by far the most successful ethnic minority in Nepal. And virtually every successful Sherpa has started his or her education at a Hillary school.
This past spring, I attended the Golden Jubilee Celebration of the Khumjung School, in part because that was to be the occasion for the presentation of the fifth Sir Edmund Hillary Mountain Legacy Medal -- a medal which my wife and I had invented back in 2002. The presentation turned out to be the highlight of the climactic third day of the celebration, which, not accidentally, was May 29, the anniversary of Sir Edmund Hillary's ascent of Mt. Everest.
Peter Hillary introducing Hillary Medal winner Ang Rita Sherpa
Alton Byers (2008 Hillary Medal winner), Ang Rita (2011 Hillary Medal winner), Beau Beza (Hillary Medal Committee chair)
The Hillary Medal was presented by Dr. Beau Beza, a professor at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, and by Peter Hillary, son of Sir Edmund, and a noted adventurer in his own right. (I highly recommend his autobiographical "In the Ghost Country: a lifetime spent on the edge.") Here is what Peter Hillary said on this occasion:
I'm delighted to be here to introduce Ang Rita Sherpa. But before I do I just want to tell you that we have trekked with the Australian Himalayan Foundation from Paphlu [in Solu district, just south of the Khumbu] to Khumjung. And when I was in Paphlu I asked Dr. Mingma Gyalzen [director of the Hillary hospital in Phaplu] what is the most important tghing remaining to be done in Solu Khumbu. And yesterday here in Khumjung we had another meeting in which we asked the doctors what is the most important thing remaining to be done in Solu-Khumbu. Now you might think that all these doctors would say that health care is the most important thing to be done. But no... they said education is number one. But education doesn't work without great teachers. Great teachers open up a world of possibility. And we're here today to celebrate someone who is a graduate of Khumjung School, and some great teachers, an old Hillary family friend, Ang Rita Sherpa.
Ang Rita has dedicated himself to the management of remote mountain protected areas. We think that it's a marvelous thing that the Hillary Medal that was approved by my father about ten years ago goes to Ang Rita on the golden jubilee of Khumjung School. I'm sure that Dad would be thrilled that one of his scholarship boys from Khumjung School is receiving this award after an incredible career in national park management.
Very briefly, Ang Rita works for The Mountain Institute in Kathmandu. He was involved in the establishment of the Makalu-Barun National Park, the Khumbu Alpine Conservation Council, and much of this work has been adopted as a model for other parts of the world, including the Andes in South America, and more recently the Sacred Sites project here in Khumbu. Well, it gives me very great pleasure to invite Ang Rita Sherpa to the stage to receive the Sir Edmund Hillary Mountain Legacy Medal.
from left: Beau Beza, Peter Hillary (rear), Ang Rita Sherpa (front), Ang Dooli (Ang Rita's mother), Alton Byers (2008 Hillary Medal winner)
Honored guests: George Band (last survivor of the 1953 ascent of Everest) and Peter Hillary
Monks observing the Khumjung festivities
Masked dancers -- a Tibetan tradition that thrives among Sherpa communities
Peter's mention of scholarship boys alludes to the annual competitive scholarship that his father set up to send Khumjung School pupils to study at the prestigious Buddhanilkanta School in Kathmandu. That's the same school attended by Prince Dipendra, who on June 1, 2001, massacred the royal family, himself included. In 1981-82, when I spent the winter in Khumjung, the landlord's dribbly-nosed five-year-old son used to regularly beat everybody at checkers; a few years later, Karsang won Hillary's Buddhanilkanta scholarship. I ran into him at the Khumjung Jubilee, where he was in charge of media management. He was just visiting -- with degrees from Cambridge and Wharton business school, he is now vice president of an asset management firm in Denver.
Karsang Sherpa with framed Letter of Appreciation for his father "Late Ang Tsering Sherpa" (my landlord in 1981-82)
The Khumbu, alone among Nepal's rural districts, is fortunate to have a reasonably good public school system, in large part because of the extensive network of international donor organizations that keep pumping money into it. Elsewhere, the government-run school system can charitably be described as pathetic. One of the main themes of the Maoist revolutionaries was that private schools were producing a new elite in Nepal; they demanded that national office-holders be obliged to send their own children to public schools, in order to force the amelioration of the national system. Now that Maoists are in charge, they not only send their own children to private schools, but actually own and invest in those schools. So much for improving the public schools, right?
Kathmandu billboard: signs for private boarding school are everywhere
Kathmandu: private school pupils
One problem with these private schools, which are nearly all boarding schools, is that they tend to homogenize the population. Parents in places like Rolwaling (the valley to the west of Khumbu) have no choice but to send their kids away to school, either to Dolakha or Kathmandu; the kids lose their maternal language and culture, and are unlikely to return to or invest in their home communities. Many of them, like Karsang, will emigrate to Europe, Australia, or North America. Good for them! For their home villages, for Nepal... not so much.
The sad thing is that donors and sponsors are aggravating the problem. The Sherpas of Khumbu have a lot of money -- easily enough to set up a Sherpa-language boarding school of their own. In fact, Ngawang Tenzin Jangpo, Abbot of Tengboche Monastery and the spiritual leader of the Khumbu, has advocated for such a school at Lukla, the town where Hillary built an airstrip to facilitate schoolbuilding in the Khumbu, but as far as I know the project is stalled. When it comes to investment, Sherpas have strong traditions: they tend to stash their money under a bed until they have enough to set up a guesthouse. That means a glut of rooms and restaurants, but electrification, schools, clinics, and other services have to wait until some international sponsor steps in. And, since all the foreigners are fascinated with Everest, a hugely disproportionate amount of money gets funneled into a tiny community.
Dancers pose in front of a new bust of Sir Edmund Hillary
Khumjung School Golden Jubilee Celebration organizers
One fact is clear: the Khumbu owes its prosperity to the Hillary schools and teachers, funded by foreigners, as much as to the scenery. Until public school teacher wages elsewhere in Nepal become high enough to start attracting some of the young people who now set their sights on the tourism industry, the Khumbu will remain an anomaly in a foundering nation.
Dreamflags on display at the Khumjung School Jubilee Celebration... the subject of my article next month
Seth Sicroff is the Nepal Editor for Wandering Educators
Manager, Sunrise Pashmina
All photos courtesy and copyright Seth Sicroff